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SIC proposes huge cuts to workforce

Clouds gather around Lerwick Town Hall as SIC faces huge cuts

PLANS for massive cuts in staffing levels at Shetland Islands Council have been announced in a supplement in the local newspaper.

More than 420 jobs – one seventh of the workforce – are likely to be lost in the council’s bid to save £18 million over the next two years, according to the four page publication in Friday’s Shetland Times.

The report says the council has already found £8 million annual savings, but must go further and cut its spending by 13 per cent by 2013 – spending £14 million less on employees and £4 million on non staff costs like procurement.

Some council employees and members of the public have expressed both alarm and confusion about the news and the way it was made public.

Alistair Buchan

However SIC chief executive Alistair Buchan said the intention was to be as open as possible and insisted the figures were “purely illustrative” of the kind of savings that were needed to bring the council’s budget under control.

“This is not a statement of the council’s intention. It’s purely to indicate the scale of the problem. We have serious difficulties and a very substantial deficit to resolve, but it is do-able,” he said.

“We are working very hard with the unions and so on to try and consider ways we can do this with as much agreement as possible. Those talks are ongoing.”

Defending the method of communication, Mr Buchan said: “It’s better that we communicate than we don’t communicate. The whole purpose is to stimulate understanding and debate in the community about what we need to do. The intention is to be as open as we can be.”

Senior managers and union leaders have recently started meeting every fortnight to discuss the council’s intention to reduce staffing levels to less than 2,600 from the current number of 3,000 budgeted posts.

The council aired its financial problems in a £2,600 supplement in The Shetland Times

The feature states: “This is not as drastic as it may seem. In effect it takes us back to the actual staffing levels we had in 2007-8.” Last month the council agreed to save £1 million by removing 15 management posts. Eight managers have already put their names forward for voluntary redundancy.

Local government unions had warned that further job cuts were on the cards, but there had been no discussion with the unions about these latest figures prior to their publication.

Unison branch chairman Brian Smith said: “How these cuts are to be achieved and if they are achievable without causing far too much damage is being discussed at the moment between the unions and the council.

“These are very difficult discussions and will take awhile. They are about how staffing levels might be dealt with using a variety of ways without sacking people. The aim is to have no compulsory redundancies at all.”

There are also concerns that a reduced workforce will find itself under increased pressure to carry out more work.

Jonathan Wills

Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills questioned the figures in the document, saying he understood the cuts to be even greater than those published on Friday, and described the entire document as “a shameless piece of spin”.

He accused the council’s leadership of having no strategy to handle the crisis, but council leader Josie Simpson said they were doing what they could to minimise the impact of the cuts that had to be made.

He said this year’s savings of £8 million would have to be more than doubled next year and that finding those was “a work in progress”.

He said: “I am not a financial wizard and never will be. We will have to depend on our officials coming with a plan as they did last year. Some cuts will be very, very severe, but we have to do it in such a way that will affect our services as little as possible.

Josie Simpson

“If I was to come down and say we will do away with a ferry on Yell Sound or we will stop the ferries at six at night, that would be absolutely crazy. We have to work the whole thing through.”

The SIC supplement cost £2,600 to produce. It reads: “That equates to around 12 pence per person in Shetland. Based on the fact that Shetland Times circulation is 10,715 each week, we felt that it was a good use of resources to get across these very important messages.”

The council has invited anyone in the community to join the debate on council finances by phoning or writing to the council at info@shetland.gov.uk or to Lerwick Town Hall.